When the Phillies signed Marlon Byrd to a two-year, $16 million deal the second week of November, I cautioned against judging the move until Ruben Amaro Jr.'s offseason was complete.
Why blast the very first move when you have no idea what is to come?
As the weeks and months progressed, the Byrd signing turned out to be the Phils' most significant free-agent addition. They also re-signed Carlos Ruiz, traded for reliever Brad Lincoln, signed Roberto Hernandez for the rotation and Bobby Abreu for the bench.
The Phillies spent very little money and committed no more than three years to anyone. It was a puzzling offseason because they chose to keep their core intact while not doing much to improve. What was the point of a $160 million payroll for a team that appeared destined for 75 to 80 wins?
All of that changed Wednesday, when after weeks of flirtation, the Phillies finally signed free-agent right-hander A.J. Burnett to a one-year, $16 million contract.
The addition of Burnett alters the Phillies' entire offseason. Now, the Byrd signing looks better. Now, the money the Phillies saved by not paying for a veteran reliever like Scott Downs or Jesse Crain makes sense.
The Phillies' payroll now sits at about $176 million (see story). The luxury tax threshold increased this season from $176 million to $189 million, meaning they will be right up against paying the penalty once player benefits and bonuses are accounted for.
But, more importantly, they now have a team that can contend in the National League.
Cole Hamels won't be ready for opening day, but if all goes according to plan and he's able to make his season debut in mid-to-late April, the Phillies will have perhaps the top 1-2-3 of any NL rotation. Only the Dodgers (Clayton Kershaw-Zack Greinke-Hyun-Jin Ryu) and Nationals (Jordan Zimmermann-Stephen Strasburg-Gio Gonzalez/Doug Fister) stick out as equal or better.
Burnett has been really, really good the last two seasons. With the Pirates from 2012-13, he went 26-21 with a 3.41 ERA. He struck out 8.9 batters per nine innings and induced groundballs at a 58 percent clip, second-best in the majors.
There are a lot of strikeout pitchers. There are plenty of groundballers. There are few pitchers who possess both skills.
With the strikeouts and grounders, Burnett's stuff should play well at Citizens Bank Park. He's never been a guy who allows many home runs -- for his career, Burnett has allowed 0.9 homers per nine innings, just below league-average. Only once in his 15-year career has he allowed more than 25 homers, in 2011, when he allowed 31 at the laughably compact Yankee Stadium.
Burnett is 37, but still throws his four-seam fastball at an average of 92.5 mph, according to Pitch/FX. The pitch used to clock in at the mid-to-high 90s. To adapt, Burnett has thrown his two-seam fastball more often. The pitch sinks, which explains the groundball uptick. Burnett loves to start right-handed hitters with the two-seamer. His most effective out-pitch, though, has always been his knuckle curve.
It's meaningless to assign No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 labels to Hamels, Burnett and Cliff Lee since Hamels won't be ready for early April. It might not be until the All-Star break that the Phillies actually format the rotation the way they'd like. But what we do know is that Burnett will push either Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez or Roberto Hernandez out of the rotation, essentially replacing a No. 5 starter with a frontline arm.
If you believe the WAR (Wins Above Replacement) projections, Burnett could add between 3-4 wins to the Phillies by replacing Hernandez or Gonzalez in the rotation.
So now that the offseason has fully taken shape, we can fully evaluate what Amaro did.
He added three starting pitchers in Burnett, Hernandez and Gonzalez. He added an inexpensive reliever with upside in Lincoln. He re-signed his starting catcher and filled needs in right field and on the bench.
The main issue Phillies fans have is with the ages of these players. Ruiz is 35. His backup, Wil Nieves, is 36. Byrd is 36. Abreu is 40. Burnett is 37.
But, again, these are all short-term deals that won't impact the Phils in the future. They are positioning themselves for one final run to October, where anything can happen.
And now, the Phillies have reclaimed their starting pitching identity. They can hang their hat on a 1-2-3 that few teams in either league can compete with, especially in a short series.
An NL East crown may not be attainable -- the Nationals look great on paper -- but with Burnett, the Phillies may compete for their first-ever wild-card berth.